Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pseudo-Pseudo Science in the Blogosphere

I recently read a post claiming to bust “10 pseudo-science theories”. However, like many posts claiming to be science based, claiming to be about science it is actually a ‘pseudo-pseudo-science’ post, presenting many ‘pseudo-pseudo-science’ theories. Many people commented on the post, most with simple statements like ‘great’ and others with minor complaints.

To be honest, when I first read the post, I thought – this makes some sense, but the author(s)? have made a few simple errors.  As I read the post over, and over, and over again, I found more holes, more nonsense, more ‘pseudo-pseudo-science’ with each re-read.

If you want to test your own sense of science, you can read the post here.  Of courses internet posts are always ‘subject to change’, so by the time you read this, the post might have changed. I often improve on my posts after they are published.

10 Pseudo-Science Theories We'd Like to See Retired Forever
If you have seen this post before, no matter what you thought, you might be very surprised by my conclusions - I have read the post at least 5 times.  I have taken the time to research many of the points, the words, the ideas and the sciences discussed therein.

The author(s) start with number ten. 

"10 Phrenology

When I was thinking about this list, I thought about mentioning graphology - handwriting analysis that supposedly reveals personality characteristics and is still used by some companies to evaluate job applicants. I thought about body language experts who claim that slouching shows deep things about a person's psyche. I thought about typology, which analyzes body shape and makes conclusions about the personality. But it's all just phrenology. Phrenology was the first time palm-readers cloaked themselves in science, and although phrenology itself has been beheaded, it sends out new heads, like the hydra."

Science? Or Pseudo-science, or is it Pseudo-pseudo-science?
It’s actually a bit hard to tell.  The science being challenged as pseudo-science is Phrenology.  But what does the writer say exactly?  There's a lot of rambling. 

Here’s a summary, in sequence:
  1.  Phrenlogy is ..actually the post writers don't bother to define phrenology.  
  2. Graphology is handwriting analysis that supposedly reveals personality characteristics (eg. but it does not)
  3. Graphology is still used by some companies to evaluate job applicants
  4.  Body language experts claim that slouching shows deep things about a person’s psyche
  5.  Typology analyzes body shape and makes conclusions about the personality of the subject
  6.  It’s all just phrenology - is this their attempt to define phrenology?
  7.  Phrenology was the first time palm-readers cloaked themselves in science
  8.  Phrenology has been beheaded,
  9.  Phrenology sends out new heads, like hydra.
Is any of these true?  Is all of it true?

Phrenology: first of all, the writer doesn't even bother to define Phrenology, either under the assumption that everyone knows what phrenology is, or that defining it is not important. For the record, from Websters: “the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character

And what about the SCIENCE of phrenology?  According to Wiki, and maybe we can agree, Phrenology was a ‘pseudo-science’.  But it was abandoned, in the mid 1800s. Does it deserve to be on a list of pseudo-science theories we’d like to see retired forever?  It was retired over 150 years ago...
Minus 1 for the author on Phrenology. Not defined. Already retired. No need to retire it.  

The author(s)? made many other points, what about them? 

2: Graphology: handwriting Analysis which our writer claims “supposedly reveals personality characteristics”.  Is graphology Science? Or Pseudo-science? Or is this post pseudo-pseudo-science?  Wiki’s entry on graphology says that most (but not all) scientific studies have found no relationship between analysis by graphologists, and personality as measured by other personality tests, with the exception of gender. Are the authors arguing that nothing about personality can be determined if you only know the gender of the subject? hmmm..
Let's give them a 0.5 score.  Sort of right. 

3: Handwriting is still "used by some companies to evaluate job applicants." True.  And based on the fact that, according to current research the only thing it can reliably reveal is GENDER, which might be said to be linked to valuable ‘personality characteristics’, but might also be an intrusion, or lead to unfair hiring practices – maybe it should be retired.  Score 1, but not for the reasons stated in the post. Bad idea, but not pseudo-science. 

Number 3: Body language experts claim that "slouching shows deep things about a person’s psyche". Is Body Language a science, a pseudo-science, or is our writer spouting pseudo-pseudo-science? Wiki, my first checkpoint says simply: “Body language refers to various forms of nonverbal communication, wherein a person may reveal clues as to some unspoken intention or feeling through their physical behavior.” It seems it is a science, not a pseudo-science. Minus one for the author's pseudo-pseudo-science.  

Do body language experts claim that "slouching shows deep things about a person’s psyche"? According to Forbes, on slouching "Bad posture signals to others that you lack confidence and have poor self esteem or low energy levels." According to, "In body language, slouching is associated with insecurity and lack of strength. "  I'm guessing the authors of this pseudo-science post just made up something, without even bothering to check.... More pseudo-pseudo science.  Minus another. 

4:  Typology analyzes body shape and makes conclusions about the personality of the subject.  Science? Pseudo-science? Is our writer spouting pseudo-pseudo-science?  What does Wiki say? 

If you don't know, prepare to be knocked over.

Typology (anthropology), division of culture by races
Typology (archaeology), classification of artifacts according to their characteristics
Typology (creation biology), system that classifies animals into groups called "created kinds" or "baramins"
Typology (linguistics), study and classification of languages according to their structural features
Typology (psychology), a model of personality types
Typology (theology), in Christian theology, the interpretation of some characters and stories in the Old Testament as allegories foreshadowing the New Testament
Typology (urban planning and architecture), the classification of characteristics common to buildings or urban spaces

Whoa! It seems that there are lots of legitimate sciences of “typology”, but NONE OF THEM matches the definition provide by the writer of this article?  What is going on here?  Did the writer mean to refer to:
Physiognomy: the assessment of a person's character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face but the authors refer to the  body, not the face? 

Or is the writer, perhaps, referring to Somatotypes “typology of personality developed in the 1940s by William Sheldon”.  But the word Somatypes is not a science and is not even well defined. Frankly, this is nonsense.  Although, I’m tempted to take away a bunch of points for lack of clarity. ?Minus 1 for nonsense and minus three for no sense. 

5. "It’s all just Phrenology". Frankly, it’s not all just phrenology. And frankly the authors have lost the thread, and finally lost their head. What is meant, I presume, is “it’s all just nonsense”. Minus 1. 

6. "Phrenology was the first time palm-readers cloaked themselves in science". True? False? Nonsense?  Phrenology, according to Wiki, was first appeared in the society of the Essense, in-between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Is the author arguing that the Essense jews were "attempting to cloak palm reading in science by developing phrenology?"

Remember that the authors didn't bother to define Phrenology. So we had to look it up.  Phrenology is the study of how shapes of human skulls indicate mental facilities and character.
-          What does it have to do with palm readers? I suspect the authors confused the fact that reading the skull involves running the palm over the skull, with 'palmistry'.  Given the looseness of the other 'facts' presented thus far, I'm not at all surprised. 

The blog authors are simply piling nonsense on nonsense, in the hope of making a point, about a science they have not taken the time to define, using other sciences and non-sciences, that they have also not bothered to research at all. 

They then continue with Numbers 7 and 8, saying:

Phrenology has been beheaded” whereas, Wiki, for example dis-agrees, stating that: “Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796. and... Gall's assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in localized parts of the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuropsychology.” Phrenology has not been be-headed, it has evolved into an important science. 
"Phrenology sends out new heads, like hydra."  Our writer provides no evidence other than poorly thought out rhetoric, and frankly gets most of it wrong. Science moves forward, while some people remain stuck in the past.

The entire first example in this post is simply Pseudo-Pseudo-Science at its worst. We don't need to track the score. If someone claims to be writing about science, one error is, maybe, acceptable.  Two are intolerable.  A paragraph full of incorrect statements, nonsense assumptions, leading to fear mongering conclusions - is not science.  It is clearly pseudo-pseudo-science. 

What’s really happening here?  This writer is mixing science and bullshit, not very skillfully. 

The effect, if we follow the opinions, the ‘faith’ presented, is that we will limit our knowledge and our freedoms, and ultimately, limit the advancement of science.


Handwriting analysis has proven to be useful, although not as originally marketed. 
Body language is a very important field of study, not just for communications and understanding among humans, but for animals and maybe someday to increase our understanding and communications with off-planet aliens. 
Typology is a valuable science term, not a pseudo-science.

Saying “it's all just phrenology “ is the first step in unscientific fear mongering that leads to silly fear generation with statements like “although phrenology itself has been beheaded, it sends out new heads, like the hydra”.

The writer not only got many facts wrong, there is no understanding of science, or of how science works.
But the author doesn't just stop there. They move on to this nonsense:

"Want to know what someone's like? Get to know them, or talk to a lot of people who know them. Handwriting won't tell you anything, unless the letters are written in blood. If you think someone's posture indicates their character, I wish you an uncomfortable chair for the rest of your life. And as for deciding that someone's body shape is an indication of what they're like inside - we got taught to know better than this in kindergarten, people. Get it together. I have no doubt that there will always be new forms of this crap floating around. Some charlatan will always find a way to claim physical characteristics indicate moral character. Give it the hydra treatment. Chop off its head and burn its neck stump."

Anyone can agree, at the start: “Want to know what someone's like? Get to know them, or talk to a lot of people who know them.”  Reasonable…

But then:  “Handwriting won't tell you anything” Not reasonable. In fact, simply wrong. Handwriting will tell you lots. Maybe not as much as was proposed in the 1850s, but science, and our understanding of science has advanced steadily since them.  We know that handwriting can tell us lots about a person.  I could make a long list, but this is getting tedious.

Followed by: “, unless the letters are written in blood.” – fear mongering.

And more nonsense and fear mongering, even a veiled threat: “If you think ” X –  “I wish you an uncomfortable chair for the rest of your life” “Give it the hydra treatment. Chop off its head and burn its neck stump.

Science true science, does not care what you believe, nor what I believe. It pursues the truth irregardless of faith, or belief.  It’s OK for you to think, and to believe what you wish. It’s OK for me to think, and to believe what I want. That’s what intellectual freedom is all about.  Science is not against intellectual freedom.

But this writer says: “Give it the hydra treatment. Chop off its head and burn its neck stump.

This is not science, it is faith.  It is a “pseudo-pseudo-science”. 

... and the rest of the post? Much of the same.  An occasional factoid, surrounded by poor research, lots of nonsense and worse.  I could dive in and do a thorough analysis, but frankly, it would be a waste of my time, and of yours as well. 

to your health, to science over nonsense, over non-science,

ps. But perhaps the original post was meant as a joke, but no-one actually got the joke? No, a joke needs more substance, more basis in actual fact, to be taken seriously - even as a joke.  It is not a joke, it is simply a witch hunt.  And we need to remember from Salem, that there were no witches.  There were only witch hunters, yelling a chorus of "cut of their heads!" and "burn them at the stump!", and innocent victims, sisters, mothers, lovers, who were persecuted for what the witch hunters, collectively, feared. 
Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine: